Clyde Edwards-Helaire's second NFL season hasn't come without some bumps in the road, and the Chiefs have needed replacements on more than one occasion.
Jerick McKinnon manned such a role in Kansas City's wild-card win over Pittsburgh gaining 122 scrimmage yards and finding the end zone. McKinnon's performance was a welcome contribution to a Chiefs offense that has been required to turn to a number of next men up. For McKinnon, a back who has battled injuries in each of the last three seasons, it was a long time coming.
"When you get in a place like that and you are fighting and battling back, the only thing you can do is just put your head down and keep working," McKinnon said, via The Associated Press, "and know in the back of your mind that the hard work is going to pay off."
The timing couldn't be better for both McKinnon and the Chiefs, who stocked their backfield with Edwards-Helaire, Darrel Williams and the unknown Derrick Gore, and managed to use the combined efforts to again win the AFC West title. Edwards-Helaire (shoulder) was again unable to go on Super Wild Card Weekend and Williams' toe injury left him in a limited role, meaning the moment was McKinnon's to seize.
He did just that, gaining 61 rushing yards on 12 attempts and catching six passes for 81 yards and a receiving touchdown. Eighteen touches produced over 120 yards and a score. McKinnon wasn't just effective, he was also efficient, and precisely what Kansas City needed to keep its offense rolling despite backfield absences.
"He gives you all kinds of confidence just by the way he handles himself," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid recently said. "He's a confident guy, he works hard, takes care of himself -- smart -- and he's a good athlete. So you felt like if he got in there, he would do a good job. He can catch the football. He can run it. He's got good vision. So it was good to get him in there."
With Edwards-Helaire making his way back to the field -- he was a full practice participant Wednesday -- McKinnon figures to be at least somewhat important to Kansas City's offense from here on out, with the potential to be as valuable as Damien Williams proved to be in the Chiefs' run to a Super Bowl LIV title in the 2019 season. McKinnon's contributions have already been enough to satisfy his teammates, who appreciate his relentless effort to become a valuable part of Kansas City's attack.
"I've seen it from training camp on that he's a playmaker," quarterback Patrick Mahomes said. "I mean, there's a reason he's been a playmaker in this league the last few years here. Obviously, he's dealt with injuries in his career, and he dealt with a little bit of injury this season, but he's kept his mindset right. He kept working hard. And I knew with some of the other guys kind of being down and dinged up, he would step up and fill in nicely."
Should the Chiefs need him to replace Edwards-Helaire or someone else again, McKinnon has proven he's both capable and prepared. He might have already earned himself an important role regardless of the injury report.